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The purpose of this essay is to explore the impacts of tourism on Siem Reap, Angkor. To begin with, this essay will briefly unfold the physical and cultural characteristics of Cambodia and Siem Reap. The challenges and opportunities in Siem Reap will be covered. This essay also will answer the question of how the tourism industry has shaped the local, natural and social environment in Siem Reap.
Cambodia is a small country with an estimated population of nearly 16.2 million but is culturally the richest and ethnically nation in Southeast Asia. Most of the people are Khmer and the remainders are divided between Chams, Vietnamese and Chinese. The indigenous Khmers practice Theravada, a form of Buddhism and the ethnic people are mostly animists. The country claims an extraordinary historic civilization focused on the city of Angkor, where the magnificent temples were built on the principles of Hindu cosmology. Physically, the country heart of the features is the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake. The Sap River serves as a huge reservoir for the Mekong and is the richest with freshwater fish. Despite being the poorest countries in the world, Cambodia is still in the movement of rejuvenating and experiencing rapid development. Siem Reap is located in the north of Cambodia and is one of the fastest changing provinces in Cambodia, given its proximity to the Angkor complex. Not only the opening of the Angkor Archaeological Park in 1925 (Gillespie, 2009), the region became the most important tourist attraction in Cambodia (Wager, 1995: 516) but also the road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was made passable, providing increased access all year (Rooney, 2001: 83).
The growing industries in Cambodia faced several challenges such as the leakages through the imports of foreign products, high costs due to the lack of infrastructure, and high production costs, especially electricity and water supplies. At the same time, preserving one of the famous wonders in the world, the Angkor city is becoming harder and harder for the local government in Siem Reap. After becoming the UNESCO world heritage, Siem Reap became one of the most visited towns in Cambodia. Tourists not only came to visit the ancient historical temple but also to do research and study about their cultures. However, failure to maintain the Angkor temple has been one of the biggest worries as most of these temples are in broken positions. On the other hand, as tourism is a service industry that demands a huge labor force, the Siem Reap Tourism Department has recorded some key tourism businesses and employment opportunities for local residents. Figure 1 summarises some of the direct tourism employment in Siem Reap. Most of these businesses are not all owned by Cambodian, in fact, it is an expatriate investment (Ngov, 2009). Moreover, most of the income generated from tourism in Cambodia goes to private foreign companies than to the national and local economies. In addition, it gave chances for foreigners to work in the region with local unemployment rates like Siem Reap (Winter, 2007). Due to the number of tourists visiting the region, the demand for accommodations has grown rapidly. This brings opportunities to the local people to work as construction workers (Howse et al., 2007).
Figure 1: Direct Tourism Employment (Ngov, 2009)
Siem Reap, the gateway town and where the ancient Khmer ruins of Angkor Wat are located, has an international airport that receives daily flights from throughout the region. Since 1997, the number of flights has been increased. From that point on, the number of hotels started to grow at a similar rate. The town already lacks an infrastructure that meets the needs of the local people. The population has grown and continued to expand since then. Due to the tremendous growth, it has worsened the infrastructure. The local people in Angkor Park are still very poor and many people from other parts of Cambodia have migrated into Siem Reap town to look for jobs and run family businesses.
The tourism industry is currently one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the world. Cambodia has been blessed by its magnificent temple of Angkor Wat. Many tourists choose to bypass Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh and traveling to Siem Reap instead to experience the ancient temple. Moreover, the number of tourists visiting the temple has extremely risen after the film striking Lara Croft poses in homage of Angelina Jolie’s exploits in Tomb Raider. However, due to tourist’s invasion over the years, this brings potential damage to the ancient monuments and local environment, and the lacks of infrastructure. According to The Independent (2008) “one of the world’s most celebrated temples is threatened with oblivion, as its ancient stones crumble from the sheer weight of tourism”. Mowforth and Munt (2003) mentioned that the growth of mass tourism has led to a range of problems, which become more obvious over recent years. It includes environmental, social and cultural poverty. The overcrowding of tourists in Siem Reap has raised major concerns about its environmental and socio-cultural impact. Not to mention the quality of the tourist’ experience also has been affected. Smith (2007) stated about the director of tourism at Angkor mentioned that they are finalizing regulations for controlling visitors and they will train guards to watch over the temples and educate visitor to help them protect the monuments.
In terms of other impacts, tourism has impaired various social and environmental problems in the area. For instance, most of the foreign tourists come to Cambodia for sex. According to the Melbourne Age, hundreds of Australian tourists have sex with girls as young as 9 years old (Crouse and Stove, 2009). Lack of family and social support increases the risk for the children to end up living and working on the streets, exposing them to sexual abuse and exploitation, trafficking dangerous child labor. The location also appears to play a significant role in terms of the social impacts of tourism. For example, some children were observed to be dropping out of school in order to sell handicrafts to the tourist (ADI Team and Ballard. 2002). But it is not necessarily endorsed solely to tourism but rather to the realities of poverty and there is no doubt that tourism has had an impact on people living in Siem Reap and around Angkor. Moreover, the government’s budget on care institutions is still insufficient, leaving children at risk of suffering from unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Furthermore, it has been observed that environmental pollution as a result of uncollected trash and poor sanitation facilities in on the rise and around Angkor Wat. Some activities also have led to major environmental problems, including air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, and solid wastes.
Tourism is indeed good for development but not to forget it can also bring negative impacts. Angkor Wat is a major international cultural heritage site, once it is damaged or destroyed, it may not be recovered. A possible way to prevent this negative development is to promote and invest in sustainable tourism, which is a way that could help protect the natural, cultural and social environment of the destination. For instance, eco-tourism is a form of tourism that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education. It is important for future development to investigate how sustainable tourism can be an investment in the social community. In addition, by integrating the needs and ways of the local community with the development of tourism, it can prevent problems and conflicts to the local culture (Shaw & Williams 2004). However, ecotourism also can have a number of negative effects such as traffic congestion, depending on the area of the attractions which can be an issue. Also, visitors can lead to various forms of pollution, it can be air, water, visual or even sound related.
Siem Reap, which has received the largest number of international tourist visits in Cambodia, is moving forward to promote all its assets, including the Angkor Wat Heritage Site to enhance economic growth. However, actions need to be taken if the region wants to prevent poverty, child labor, pollutions, and cultural conservation. Therefore, not only the industries but also locals need to work in hand to improve the issues in Siem Reap and also Cambodia as a whole.
- ADI Team, & Ballard, B. M. (2002) The impact of the tourism industry in Siem Reap on the people who live in Angkor park. Phnom Penh: Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC).
- Crouse, J. S. and Stove, A. (2009) Tourism contributes to the exploitation of women and children. In R. Espejo (Ed.), What is the impact of tourism? New York: Greenhaven Press.
- Gillespie, J. (2009) Protecting World Heritage: Regulating Ownership and Land Use at Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 15(4), pp. 338-354.
- Heritage site in peril: Angkor Wat is falling down (2008) Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/heritage-site-in-peril-angkor-wat-is-falling-down-795747.html [Accessed 21 May 2019].
- Howse, J., Boffa, F., Eagle, S., Lambert, R. d., Clark, L., Klerx, G., et al. (2007) Angkor management plan: APSARA Authority.
- Mowforth, M. and Munt, I. (2003) Tourism and Sustainability, Development and New Tourism in the Third World (2nd Ed.) London: Routledge.
- Ngov, S. (2009) The situation and the management of tourism in Siem Reap. Siem Reap: Siem Reap Tourism Department, Ministry of Tourism.
- Rooney, D. F. (2001) Angkor (4th Ed.). Hong Kong: Odyssey Publications.
- Shaw, G. and Williams, A. M. (2004) Tourism and Tourism Spaces, London: SAGE Publications Limited.
- Smith, J. (2007) Tourist invasion threatens to ruin glories of Angkor Wat, The Guardian, 25 Feb. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/feb/25/travel.travelnews [Accessed 19 May 2019]
- Wager, J. (1995) Environmental Planning for a World Heritage Site: Case Study of Angkor, Cambodia. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 38(3), pp. 419-434.
- Winter, T. (2007) Rethinking tourism in Asia. Annals of Tourism Research, 34(1), pp. 27-44.
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